DriveLAB: Keeping Older Drivers On The Road Safely
April 23, 2012

DriveLAB: Keeping Older Drivers On The Road Safely

Brett Smith for

As an aging population of Baby Boomers is expected to travel the roadways over the next few decades, many are concerned about their ability to continue to drive safely into retirement and maintain the independence that a driver´s license affords.

In an effort to eventually develop new technologies to support older drivers, the Intelligent Transport research team at Newcastle University in the UK has developed a car which monitors concentration, eye movements, and stress levels of its driver.

The researchers used a modified Peugeot iOn, called the “DriveLAB,” to not only monitor their older test subjects, but to see how successfully tools like navigation aids, night vision systems, and intelligent speed guides aided their driving.

"We have to accept that, as we get older, our reactions slow down and this often results in people avoiding any potentially challenging driving condition and losing confidence in their driving skills,” project leader Phil Blythe told The Independent.

"The result is that people stop driving before they really need to. We are looking at ways of keeping people driving safely for longer, which in turn boosts independence and keeps us socially connected."

In their research, the team looked at a satellite navigation system tailored to meet the needs of individual drivers instead of the one-size-fits-all navigation systems currently available. Based on feedback they had received, the team said older drivers prefer to drive routes they are familiar with, which might not be the quickest way to a particular destination.

Many older UK drivers are also not comfortable making right turns, equivalent to left turns in the US, because they have difficulty judging the speed of oncoming traffic, researchers found.

The DriveLAB team found many predictable results, but the study also yielded surprising results that run counter to some popular misconceptions about drivers of a certain age.

"For example, most of us would expect older drivers always go slower than everyone else but surprisingly, we found that in 30mph zones they struggled to keep at a constant speed and so were more likely to break the speed limit and be at risk of getting fined,” researcher Amy Guo said in a press statement.

"We're looking at the benefits of systems which control your speed as a way of preventing that."

Even though driving laws vary from country to country, the fairly universal mechanics of driving a car means that the results of the Newcastle University study will be extremely valuable to car manufacturers around the world. Blythe said he expects some technologies produced as a result of the study to be available “soon.”

The realities of an aging driver population can be seen in other countries as well. A research survey released this year by Statistics Canada, a federal statistics agency, said drivers older than 70 “have a higher accident rate per kilometer driven than any other age group except young male drivers.”

The survey also found 28 percent of people over 65 with Alzheimer's or other types of dementia had a driver's license, and 75 percent of those drivers had been on the roads within a month of the survey being given.

In the US, it is the individual state´s responsibility to regulate laws regarding older drivers. In 2004, Florida passed a law requiring older drivers to pass a vision test for their license to get renewed. The result was a 17 percent drop in the driver death rate for those over 80. Maryland state law allows police, doctors, and family members to refer drivers to the state´s Motor Vehicle Administration for possible testing. According to that department´s advisory board, police refer about 700 people annually. About 60% of them are drivers over age 65.